Upgrading the grid
Utility firms in several Western states plan to upgrade their electric grids to meet reliability, growing loads and new resource needs, including supporting growth in renewable energy resource development.
Some companies want to build new power transmission lines. Other firms are using technology to better monitor transmission needs or are developing new materials enabling existing lines to carry higher electric loads. The new strategies accommodate a rising tide of "green energy" derived from the sun, water and wind.
The stakes are high in California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado, states that are already major green power producers. To meet the new 2020 renewable portfolio standard targets, utilities there must substantially boost the amount of green power they produce.
Renewables Portfolio Standards legislation in the region is "really driving the demand for renewable generation," said Doug Larson, executive director of the Western Interstate Energy Board, an organization of energy groups in 11 Western U.S. states and three provinces in Western Canada. He said power firms in nine states - Colorado, Washington, California, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico and Utah - face Renewables Portfolio Standards in the years ahead.
Meeting the new goals means utility firms in California - which Larson said already produces the largest amount of green energy of any state - will have to boost the amount of electricity from renewable sources from the current 20 percent to 33 percent by 2020.
Colorado companies must raise energy produced from renewables to 30 percent by 2020. That means adding an additional 8,700 gigawatt hours of sustainably generated power, an increase that would nearly triple the current production of 3,000 gigawatt hours, Larson said. Utilities can meet the goal either by generating more renewable power themselves or purchasing it, according to the environmental sustainability nonprofit RAP.
More alternative power means more work for power lines, some of which are old or straining near capacity.
In Colorado, for example, the electrical load for wholesale electric cooperative Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association rose three times the national average for utility growth last year, said Lee Boughey, the group's senior manager for communications and public affairs. Much of the increase came from rising power needs at the region's growing oil and gas industry, he said.
Westminster-based Tri-State already serves nearly 1.5 million people through 5,000-mile, high-voltage transmission lines supplying power to 18 member electric cooperatives in Colorado, plus 12 in New Mexico, eight in Wyoming and six in Nebraska.
"Utilities, transmission providers and stakeholders have collaborated to develop sound transmission studies, and now it's time to move forward to permit and construct needed infrastructure," Boughey said. "We're planning and building for the long- term needs of the transmission system."
To get the best value for consumers, it's essential to plan and build transmission to serve many purposes, said Boughey. This requires a "systems" approach to planning that considers reliability, load serving, access to power markets and interconnections of new resources, including renewables.
While it's possible to open a renewable energy plant relatively quickly, getting a high-power transmission line up and running is often another story, said attorney Eric Drummond, a partner responsible for energy, natural resources and clean technology at law firm Patton Boggs in Denver.
Transmission lines covering long distances often encounter numerous "regulatory barriers," Drummond said. Projects must meet environmental standards, receive approval from each local jurisdiction the transmission line crosses and get the OK from state utility regulators.
All those signs-offs can make transmission line approvals take two to 10 years, Drummond said.
The result can be "a chicken and egg situation" where power generators balk at building new plants if there's no way to transport that power, while transmission firms don't want to build power lines if there's no electricity immediately available to deliver, according to Drummond.
"It may take a number of years to get these lines built, even though there's a need and the generation (plant) is already up and running," he said.
"Electric utilities, renewable energy developers, local governments, and regulators in Colorado recognize these challenges and are taking a proactive approach to determining how best to resolve them," says Tom Dougherty, an energy and utility attorney who heads the Clean Energy Practice Group at Denver law firm Rothgerber Johnson & Lyons. "There is general agreement among the various stakeholders that Colorado, and the Rocky Mountain region, needs to build a more capable and robust electric transmission system to meet the needs of businesses and consumers and to develop the full potential of the region's renewable resources."
Dougherty points to recent efforts by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to streamline its approval processes for new transmission projects as well as a current legislative task force investigating opportunities to improve and better coordinate local government permits for such projects which can be a significant source of delay in project approval and construction.
Tri-State has launched two major energy transmission projects, including a $180 million, 140-mile power line designed to resolve ongoing reliability concerns while carrying renewable solar energy from the sunny San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado to large cities including Denver and others on the Front Range.
The transmission line project is a partnership between Xcel Energy of Minneapolis, and Tri-State, Colorado's second-largest power generator. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission approved the project in September.
Tri-State has proposed a second transmission project in Eastern and Southern Colorado and, with Xcel Energy, is preparing to file an application for that 400-mile, $800 million project this fall, Boughey said.
Other companies are turning to technology to help existing power lines function more efficiently and reliably.
Minnesota-based 3M and Composite Technology Corp. of California have developed higher-capacity transmission cables now being used in some utility grids. Their product uses aluminum composite rather than steel in the cable's core, enabling it to carry more power.
However, that material is significantly more expensive than conventional components, said Larson.
Some transmission firms believe that more frequent monitoring of wind and solar generators is another answer to more efficient power distribution.
For example, a solar plant might purchase transmission capacity for an hour - the industry standard - but 30 minutes later the sun goes behind a cloud. "All of a sudden there's no energy coming out and they can't use the transmission capacity," said Lisa Meiman, spokeswoman for the Western Power Administration in Colorado. The plant would be penalized for not using the transmission they've purchased, she said.
Three regional transmission organizations now measure how much power is being produced every 30 minutes, so if sun or wind power falters, the companies can adjust by either not buying as much transmission time or finding others to purchase their time. Other organizations are expected to follow suit.
Colorado startup Power Tagging has developed an automated system to show which green power producers have an excess of energy and which don't have enough. So, if a house equipped with photovoltaic panels is creating too much electricity but an electric car nearby needs a charge, the company's "location awareness" system can alert the two.
Four utility firms are testing the technology, company co-founder and chief marketing and strategy officer Steven Berens said. ∴